Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hall & Oates- "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)"

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 4

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is the first song in this series that was recorded in the epoch of the music video. As is true for many other people my age, it’s difficult to overestimate the effect MTV had on me. It’s likewise difficult to overestimate the effect MTV has had on culture in general. The pace of MTV’s editing- that being lightning fast- wrapped a façade of exterior cool onto everything it came in contact with, into every aspect of culture from commercials to film to reality television (which it invented) to broadcast news. The tempo and the rhythm of MTV’s fast editing has had drastic effects on how we as a species process visual information. Before MTV, we were an image-obsessed culture. Now, the visual is so powerful that it blocks out most of our other senses- it is the ultimate measure of reality- to be perceived is to be seen. This effects our entire race’s conception of ontology. So, to say that MTV has had effects on the species is not the least bit hyperbolic (okay, maybe the least bit). For not only did MTV set music to pictures, it made images into music. Reality became a music video, our experiences set to the conventions and restrictions of traditional composition, mappable and navigable.

In an essay written shortly after the death of Michael Jackson, I commented that Michael Jackson’s rise corresponded with the start of my memory development, thus I never knew a world without Jackson. The same can be said about MTV. MTV turns 30 this year and so do I. My world and the MTV world, the neoliberal world, the Michael Jackson world, have always been the same one.

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is a perfect sample of an MTV era song. It’s a tune that can be defined as much by its “look” as its “feel”. By “look”, I don’t meant the actual music video or the way Daryl Hall and John Oates actually look, but the way the music purports to be seen, as well as the way the music looks upon the world. The music on “I Can’t Go For That” appears smooth, ironed-out, and healthy. Its hair is combed and not wily, its clothes stylish and sporty rather than ragged and labored. Daryl Hall’s voice sounds clean and that rare sheen of twinkling synth sound seems to reflect the glint in Hall’s pearly white teeth and baby blue eyes. You can smell the cologne. If Three Dog Night were as “slick as Wesson Oil”, Hall & Oates were as smooth as astroglide, an erotic wish-fulfillment fantasy (and the 80s sure were full of those) of cleanliness next to godliness, sexual desire as the manifestation of purity and good health.

Rock n’ roll’s primality and grit, its blood, sweat, and tears if you will, were frequently its greatest selling points. Daryl Hall’s crystal clear, immaculately produced voice was absent what some critics have dubbed the “grain” of the black voice, evident in oldie R&B stars like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson. Hall & Oates and their peers were dubbed blue-eyed soul by their detractors, a name signifying not only whiteness, but an ethnic cleansing of blackness, which at the time (and still to a certain segment of the population) was the sole barometer of a music’s authenticity and worth.

Rock’s grit was a distinguishment of the genre as the music of the unwashed masses, a permanent underclass. However, rock n’ roll had won the culture wars. It conquered the world. The proliferation of the upwardly mobile yuppie class signified that social hierarchies and the rock n’ roll impulse were not mutually exclusive. The New Pop of the new leisure class just repositioned Bacchanalian hedonic drive as consumer-driven desire, a paragon of purity as naturally motivated as the libidinal reflex of a gyrating Jagger or Elvis. The sonic timbres of the music, guided by the hand of machines (synthesizers and particularly digital emulators), took a turn towards the luxuriant, the stylish, the elegant, and the hygienic.

The Hall & Oates look was perhaps perfected in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, a slick crime drama often referred to as an MTV cop show, one where the fuzz stroll around in extravagant convertibles in flamboyant designer outfits. Miami Vice too was a show that in retroactivity is perceived as being an overtly “white” syndrome of the era, but actually had a fairly integrated cast of blacks and Latinos. The soundtrack to the show was partially scored by former Mahavishnu Orchestra member turned synthaesthete Jan Hammer, but it’s rotational series of pop hits mostly felt like variations on the “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” template of suave and professional sophisti-pop nourished by warm synth pads.

Despite the accusations of bleaching soul out of all its vitality (which many of their peers could be rightly accused of), Hall & Oates were quite popular at the time amongst blacks and whites. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” topped both the pop and R&B charts, which had never been done before. It fit the format for urban radio, contemporary pop radio, and new wave radio. The song even scored Single of the Week by rock tastemaker magazine NME, which at this time was still primarily championing bold and adventurous new sounds from both the post-punk underground and the emerging synth-ruled mainstream.

By the time Daryl Hall and John Oates had met at Temple University, both of them were already playing on soul records being put out on Kenny Gamble’s arsenal of labels. Daryl Hall had even written songs for Chubby Checker. The sound of the records Hall and Oates recorded was the formation of what Gamble and his partner Leon Huff would mold into Philly Soul. When they began to put out their own records, their sound diverged from the Philly Soul aesthetic, incorporating rock, folk, and even prog elements into their soul. Their 1973 concept album (!) War Babies even used Todd Rundgren’s prog-rock outfit Utopia, featuring on such tunes as “I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance)” and “Johnny Gore and the ‘C’ Eaters” (I swear this a real Hall & Oates album), as their back-up band.

Hall & Oates had a spotty career until its meteoric rise in the 1980s. Long, unsuccessful periods were punctuated by astronomical hits like “She’s Gone”, “Sara Smile”, and “Rich Girl”. Their albums would wildly stray between genres for the first decade of their tenure. In 1977, Hall even wrote an experimental solo album called Sacred Songs, which was produced by Robert Fripp. Featuring the first recorded appearance of Frippertronics, the art prog music (check the red hot proto-punk intensity of “NYCNY”) was meant to be part of a trilogy along with Peter Gabriel’s second self-titled album and Fripp’s own Exposure. Hall’s managers, seeing this as career suicide, did everything in their power to stop it, which they successfully did.

Hall & Oates seemingly responded by incorporating the pop avant-garde sounds of synthpop into their R&B (Ian Penman allegedly stated that “I Can’t Go For That” was something like “avant-MOR”). By 1982, synthpop had arrived in form, producing mega-stars like The Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, and Dépêche Mode. Synthpop itself was a very image-conscious sound. Based partially in Bowie and Ferry, synthpop produced a tech’ed out glam for the 1980s in crisp and clear tones, which were at times overshadowed by a barrage of make-up and evocative imagery plucked from surrealism and sci-fi. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” belongs as much in the bucket of synthpop as R&B. It was high society as glam alienation.

Though it is rarely remembered amongst this canon, the song has remained a classic amongst the hip hop community (who, it should also be noted, dig Hall’s art-rock peer Phil Collins). The appeal amongst the predominantly black artists who have relentlessly sampled the track has baffled outsiders for years, many of whom have considered hip-hop heads to be the ultimate curators of cool and Hall & Oates to be the harbingers of death to rock, pop, and even synthpop.

Perhaps the most popular sample of “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is the one in De La Soul’s “Say No Go” from their seminal acclaimed Three Feet High and Rising album, which takes its title from a line in the song (It’s also a syntax-skewed piss-take on Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign). However, there are two songs both called “I Can’t Go For That”, by Priority One and 2 Live Crew respectively, that appeared a year prior to De La Soul’s 1989 album (The 2 Live Crew song uses the song’s chorus to reject women who want to get into their wallets. Despite some bland literalism and the prerequisite misogyny, the song features some decent scratching).

However, it was De La Soul’s “Say No Go” that underwent some critical scrutiny. Writer Elizabeth Wheeler claimed that De La Soul’s use of the song was “ironic” since it took “an insipid love story” and relocated it “in the ghetto where babies addicted to crack cocaine are born every day”. This was conveniently a victory for postmodernism, a neutral pastiche re-invigorated with political potential by an underclass moment of detournment.
However, this couldn’t have been further from the case. Prince Paul, producer of “Say No Go”, confirmed to interviewers that he was actually a big fan of “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and this was the sole reason for the lift (from Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop by Joseph Glenn Schloss).

Though the aforementioned songs sampled bits of the chorus and verses, the introduction to “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” offers several entry points. The oft-borrowed break that leads the song off was actually made on a drum machine, a CompuRhythm box preset. Nevertheless, despite its mechanicalism, the beat has been used via sampling in at least a couple dozen hip-hops songs, and probably elsewhere in breakbeat-oriented electronic music as well. The opening bassline has also been replicated innumerable times, the most prominent example being Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. MTV God Jackson admitted to Hall during the “We are the World” sessions (more on that one later) that he had filched his infamous lick in "Billie Jean" from “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”, which Hall was apparently flattered by.

In fact, unlike other stuffy artists at the time who regarded hip-hop’s pilfering enterprise as an affront to rock’s worksmanship (The Turtles had sued De La Soul over another sample from Three Feet High and Rising), Hall & Oates loved the attention they got in the hip-hop community, which they saw as something of a new vanguard, even going so far as to regularly champion “Say No Go” in interviews and play it before their concerts. It’s unclear what they might think of the way they’ve curried favor in the chillwave/hypnagogic pop community, but it’s worth noting that these are two cutting edge communities which have cited Hall & Oates as a precedent.

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is an odd song, one that endures despite its time-specific limitations. Most notable amongst these are the ripping sax solos, which have become something of a calling card of ironic referential/deferential pop (see Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)”). Sax had been present at rock’s inception. It suffocated at the hands of schmaltzy records by Chicago, but was reborn in the 1980s as New Pop's take on soul dabbled in what was soon to be called "Smooth Jazz". What became known as “Smooth Jazz” though was actually quite a new invention (it had roots in the muzaky leanings of fusion artists like The Weather Report), albeit an innovation that irked and provoked more than it inspired. Still, two years time from the release of "I Can't Go For That", smash hits like Wham’s “Careless Whisper” would flood the charts with alternating synth n’ sax and blue-eyed soul’s keyboard patches would find a legacy from Level 42 on down to Rick Astley, for better or worse.

Where “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” splits from these admittedly non-noncommercial pariahs is in its intentionally cold demeanor. The bridge is its most euphoric part, but its uplift of “I’d do almost anything thing/That you want me to” is quickly crushed by the bitter deterministic realism of Hall’s admission of “But I can’t go for that…no can do”, sung in an equally distant, detached manner. Here is a disquiet at odds with the comfort food of Yacht rock. Lyrically, the ambivalence of the pronouns ("That", "You") could afford any substitute. Plenty have offered their suggestions. Pop music has a long history of hiding desire behind the pronouns “you” or “it”, but here the “that” does not really seem to signify anything specific. The verses offer little beyond circumstantial, and inadmissible, clues.

The most tempting interpretation of “that” is “love”, which would make Hall seem little more than an icy, proudly self-absorbed dick. It seems like Hall wants girls to exploit his fame for sex, but has no interest in getting involved, which is at least more sincere than the bulk of love songs on the radio. In this “anti-love” scenario, Hall proposes that his paramours “Use the body, now you want my soul”, later daftly admitting that “I can’t go for being twice as nice/I can’t go for just repeating the same old lines”. He doesn’t have time for romance. He just wants a quickie. Or conversely, he thinks romance is dated and too cliched to be meaningful ("same old lines").

However, this is just one possible analysis. It’s one that fits cozily as a buffer to the greed decade and the rise of the Patrick Bateman types as soundtracked by what has historically been counted as Hall & Oates’s legacy (Huey Lewis, UB40, George Michael, etc.). However, the amount of subcultural capital the group have accumulated suggests that the band have contributed more to music that just pride, vanity, and a world mediated by imagery. The song may not have meant much to me (other than me thinking, like Prince Paul, that it was a cool tune), but the song’s impact on MTV, on Michael Jackson, on blue-eyed soul, on hip-hop, on Junior Boys, on Ben Gibbard, and on chillwave form a vast network of sonic ramifications that make its allure undeniable. Like its subject matter, the song’s place as either nemesis or benefactor of pop music remains an enigma.


  1. Just stumbled upon your blog and love the analysis, especially here on I Can't Go for That. There was an episode of Live From Daryl's House with Cee-Lo where during dinner conversation about Sara Bareilles' "Love Song" ("I'm not going to write you a love song") is actually inspired about her experience with the recording industry, not a romantic love song per se. Hall claims that I Can't Go for That is similarly inspired ("repeating the same old lines...") I found this fascinating to consider this song in that manner, given it's a song I grew up with...

  2. Thanks for the kind words and for the tip on the lyrics, re: Hall's experience with the record industry. I'm sad that I've abandoned this project for the time being. I hope to get back to it at some point.